Substantive concepts or ‘ways of thinking’? Finding a path through the mental world of the Ancien Regime.

Anyone who knows me well could tell you that, while I have always been an enthusiastic walker, I have a slightly ambivalent relationship with maps. Many a school trip has been brought to a halt while I have juggled print-outs and my phone (always lacking either battery life or signal at this point), trying vainly to reconcile the symbols and directions contained therein with the reality of the streets I’m walking through. However, my desire to walk further outside of my comfort zone during the long months of lockdown has led me to make more of an effort with my OS maps and I have dutifully shoved them in my backpack before going out wandering. Needless to say, the results have been mixed, but while a recent walk found me squinting at my map trying to find out where I had gone wrong, as I puzzled over it, the problem I had been mulling over while I walked suddenly resolved itself much more clearly in my mind. 

The problem I had been considering had originally emerged when I sat down to re-think the first part of the French Revolution course, where students are introduced to the Ancien Regime and explore the tensions within it that led to its collapse in 1789. I was partly doing so because, after reading Mike Hill’s brilliant work on the topic I wanted to do a better job at world-building in this part of the course. I was also trying to tackle some problems I had seen in my students’ ability to navigate the mental world of 18th century France. My awareness of these problems had been sparked by reading Catherine McCrory’s article in the recently published volume Knowing History in Schools. Her exploration of the ways in which the representation of key historical concepts is inextricable from the process of reasoning with them in the history classroom had made me think again about the ways in which I was using substantive concepts in the French Revolution course. Were some of the problems I had become aware of arising because I had not been planning for their representation, but not considering how students should be reasoning with them in enough detail? 

What is my current approach? 

My planning for the relevant part of the French Revolution course had been centred around two interpretations, firstly, Alexis de Tocqueville’s claim that the French State had become entirely modernised and centralised by the reign of Louis XVI and secondly, Schama’s argument that challenges to Louis’ government from the 1770’s on were sparked by resistance to his attempts to reform the state. As part of my teaching of these enquiries I had made particular use of substantive concepts like ‘privilege’ and ‘reason’ in order to help students understand the mindset of the Ancien Regime and of the Enlightenment. 

Example of some board-work done with the concept of ‘privilege’ last year.

In approaching these substantive concepts with the students I had drawn heavily on the research conducted for my MEd. There I had explored how students could use evidence to get a sense of the meaning of particular concepts, explore how they were used, and then place them in a ‘web’ of associated concepts that ‘talked to each other’ in an effort to understand the ‘mindset’ of a period. This had been successful to an extent, in that my students seemed to have grasped the specific meaning of these concepts in the period. Many were also referring to concepts like ‘privilege’ when exploring the nature of, and problems with, aspects of the Ancien Regime such as the three estates system. 

However, I was increasingly concerned that idespite some of the strengths of this approach, it wasn’t helping my students to orient themselves in the mental world of the Ancien Regime in quite the way I had hoped. The problem seemed to be threefold: firstly, students were demonstrating a clear sense of what concepts like ‘privilege’ meant in the period, but seemed less confident when navigating the ways in which concepts interacted, changed or superseded each other. Secondly, where conceptual change was explored, as in the case of the shift from more traditional approaches to society and the state to those of the Enlightenment, students tended to assume that change occurred across the board and all at once, not really recognising the survival of older ways of thinking alongside new ones. Thirdly, my reliance on documentary evidence to ‘reveal’ concepts to students was leading to a failure of representation, as only ways of thinking that appeared in these types of evidence were becoming ‘visible’ to my students. Overall, I seemed to be stuck at the stage of ‘representing’ concepts to my students without allowing them to reason with them enough, and this was limiting how far they could be understood by them and was also not reflecting how these concepts actually operated in the period accurately. 

How to solve this problem? 

This brings me back to my eureka moment with the OS map. I’d been mulling over this problem for some time, tweaking the sequence of lessons, thinking about new ways of introducing key substantive concepts to the students, without really feeling like I’d cracked the problem. It was not until my mind was supposedly elsewhere that I realised that many of the problems I had created for myself had their origin in something more fundamental, in the mental model of how substantive concepts could work in this particular course that I was using when planning it. Rather than getting my students caught up in ‘webs’ of concepts, perhaps I needed to consider following paths or ‘ways of thinking’ through the course instead. 

I probably need to explain in a bit more detail how an earth this relates to an OS map. Let’s say for example you are looking at a map of the South Downs way. As you read it, you are going to be privy to a range of information about the route you are looking for, firstly where it goes as it flows up and over the Downs, but also the landmarks that it passes that will tell you you’re on the right track while you’re walking on it. The map will also tell you about the other routes that intersect with it, identifying where paths like the Monarch’s Way or Staine Street join it and leave it behind. (A map-reader with a certain amount of historical knowledge might also be able to connect these paths to the stories of Charles II”s escape route after his defeat at Worcester and the old Roman Road.) There is however, also information that does not appear on the map and which only becomes visible when walking in the landscape, namely the desire-lines or hidden cut-throughs that either were not evident or were not deemed important enough to be included when the map was constructed. 

As I looked at the map, I realised that I had possibly found a better framework for how I wanted substantive concepts to work. Unlike the rather static ‘web’ analogy I had been working with previously, thinking about ‘ways of thinking’ as paths seemed to me to be a better reflection of how these concepts actually operated in the period. ‘Ways of thinking’ that drew on the philosophy of the Enlightenment might converge with those that drew on the more traditional ideas that underpinned the Ancien Regime at points. One ‘way of thinking’ might seem to overwhelm another but ‘landmarks’ represented by key narratives or pieces of evidence might be used to help students identify that multiple ‘pathways’ were still travelling through the course. Furthermore, places where these ‘ways of thinking’ joined or deviated from each other could also be identified and questions could be raised about why the evidence the students explored made some ‘ways’ more visible than others. 

With all this churning around in my head (and still not convinced as to whether I had experienced a moment of revelation or of madness)  there was only one thing to do when I got home. I had to sit down and try to draw myself a map. 

I’ll be honest, this took me a few tries to get right, but it represents a model for my use (not necessarily for the use of my students) in adjusting the way in which I plan to work with ‘ways of thinking’ when teaching the part of the course that introduces the Ancien Regime, and explores its collapse in 1789. 

The first key thing I wanted to include in my map was a moment of orientation in the mental world of the Ancien Regime. There were three distinct ‘ways of thinking’ that I thought were particularly relevant, those that underpinned the structures of the Ancien Regime, those that characterised the Enlightenment and finally those that were prevalent in popular culture. As I introduced each path, I wanted to plan for a moment where students could get a sense of the characteristics of the pathway being introduced and how it might relate to the other ‘ways’ and to the landscape of the Ancien Regime as a whole. I had already used the narrative of Louis XVI’s coronation to introduce some of the characteristics of the Ancien Regime and some of the historical debates I wanted students to engage with when I had previously taught the course. Taking a further cue from Mike Hill’s work on worldbuilding therefore, I decided to extend this in order to help students orient themselves on the other two paths. The narratives I chose were the story of Robespierre’s inaugural speech at the Academy of Arras in 1784 as an introduction to the mental and social world of the Enlightenment (and as a way of introducing a key character) and the story of ‘Princess’ Madeleine Pochet during the Flour War of 1774, as a way of introducing the ‘popular’ way of thinking in the Ancien Regime. 

Planning to introduce the different ‘ways of thinking’ with these narratives also allows me to make it clear to the students that they have an existence prior to the moment they appear on our map. The mapping metaphor further compelled me to consider carefully at which moments the different paths would join our main route and at which points they would deviate from each other. Here the ‘ways of thinking’ that underpinned the Ancien Regime would be the path that would be followed first and the landscape that it passed through would be the structure of its government and society. Once established, the pathway of the Enlightenment could be introduced and the ways in which these two ‘ways of thinking’ interacted and conflicted could be explored, especially in the face of the economic challenges facing the Ancien Regime. Finally the popular resistance that exploded in response to the reforming efforts of the Controller Generals would serve to introduce the third ‘way of thinking’ I want student to follow; the mindset of popular resistance and revolt. Likewise, using the mental model of a map allowed me to plan more carefully for moments of deviation, where the ‘way of thinking’ associated with the Enlightenment appears to be the predominant pathway from the summer of 1789, but with the opportunity for the return of the other two ‘ways of thinking’ to the route in 1791 and 92. 

The second problem that this model allows me to address is the issue with students assuming that the introduction of a new ‘mindset’ inevitably means the destruction of the old one. Having the model of converging ‘paths’ has the potential to assist with this. An example on the map I constructed was the moment of convergence during the crisis of 1787-89, where key events such as the failure of the Assembly of Notables, the Day of Tiles and the calling of the Estates-General for 1789 could be used to highlight the persistence of all three ‘ways of thinking’ through this moment of upheaval. Thinking carefully about some of the ‘landmarks’ on the route could also help me problematise convergence. In my previous teaching of the course I had already used a range of the ‘registers of grievances’ compiled in the run-up to the meeting of the Estates-General in 1789 (including unofficial documents such as the ‘women’s cahier’), to explore mindsets at this particular turning point. Now, as a landmark for all of the different ‘ways of thinking’, they could have an additional function for exploring how far convergence had occurred and to consider the reasons why the pathways were likely to deviate from each other. 

The ‘landmark’ represented by the ‘registers of grievances’ compiled between 1788 and 1789 also allowed me to consider how my map might address the third and final problem I had identified for the use of substantive concepts in this course; the reliance on documentary evidence and the limitations of ‘visibility’ of certain ways of thinking within it. I had already made some plans to address this problem by taking my cue from cultural historians of the period like Robert Darnton in considering how t help my students ‘read’ key moments of revolt in order to illuminate the ways of thinking that underpinned them. Events like the Flour War, the Day of Tiles and the Great Fear could therefore act as landmarks on my map for the ‘way of thinking’ that characterised popular attitudes in the period and would assist with the visibility of this path. Additionally, placing this ‘way of thinking’ as a path running through my map could also help me make this question of visibility available for my students to interrogate. Their familiarity with the ‘way of thinking’ that characterised popular attitudes as a path through the period could allow us to explore why this path was less visible in documents like the registers of grievances of 1789 and why it seemed to have completely faded from view by the time the Declaration of the Rights of Man (and of Woman) and the constitution of 1791 were emerging. The constructed nature of the map I had drawn up for my students to follow through the period would then become more clear. 

Does this map lead anywhere?

Two questions are now particularly relevant. The first one is whether this model will work at the planning stage but collapse on contact with reality. My current belief is that the map I have drawn will be better as a guide for my own planning than something to be shared with my students, but the approach it outlines to integrating concepts or ‘ways of thinking’ into my teaching in the coming year, and whether this helps to address some of the problems I have identified, can only be tested in the classroom. The second is whether focusing more on ‘ways of thinking’ rather than substantive concepts has any applicability beyond the very specific period I’m working with here. My hunch is that it might; I can certainly see how it might be applied to other moments of intellectual challenge and change in our course on the English Reformation, and also how it might be applied to ‘ways of thinking’ associated with imperialism, nationalism and resistance in our British Empire course. For the moment however, it would serve me well to remember the lessons that most walkers are familiar with, which is that a route set out at a kitchen table can only really be tested by walking it. 

Link to my map of ‘ways of thinking’ through the Ancien Regime: